Kuaokala to Mokuleia Campsite

Kuaokala to Mokuleia Campsite

by Dayle Turner

Every year, the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club sponsors a backpacking camping trip out to the Mokuleia campsite on the Presidents' Day weekend. I had been to the campsite before, albeit via a different route than the HTMC folks were going to take, and since I had never hiked on the Kuaokala Trail, which the trail club folks were going to use, I decided to tag along with them.

I left my home in Kaneohe at 7 a.m. to meet the HTMC gang for their appointed 8 a.m. meeting time at the end of Farrington Highway by Yokohama Bay out past Makaha and Makua Valley, and enjoyed the one hour drive, particularly rounding the corner by Kahe Point, where I could see the mighty ridges and peaks of Oahu's west side--Pu'u o Hulu, the large upswelling by the sea right before Maili; Heleakala, the distinct peak in the middle of Nanakuli Valley; Kamaileunu, the 3000-plus foot mass mauka of Waianae High School; and later, Ohikilolo, one of the most dangerous ridges on Oahu; and Kalena and Kaala, Oahu's highest peaks.

Along the way, I passed Makaha Beach, where a throng of surfers and spectators had already begun gathering, even this early on a Saturday morning, in preparation for Buffalo Keaulana's Big Board Classic. I even spotted a Kamehameha classmate, Myron Van Gieson, and after exchanging waves and howzits, I continued on my way down the coast, passing Kea'au, Kaneana (Makua) Cave, and then Makua Valley.

Not far before the paved highway ends, an access road leading to the Kaena Point Satellite Tracking Station switchbacks up the steep pali to gain the mountain's crest. Makai of the highway at that point is Yokohama Bay, known to Hawaiians as Keawa'ula Bay. At the base of the access road is a military-manned guard station where one needs to present a pass to gain access (passes are available free of charge from the State Forestry Division office located on the first floor of the Kalanimoku building just mauka of City Hall on 1151 Punchbowl Street).

I had picked up a pass the day before but didn't need to present it because the leader of the trail club backpacking group had already made arrangements to get all members of the hiking/camping group through the checkpoint.

That done, a caravan of ten cars made the 2-plus mile drive up the steep, well-paved road to the mountain's crest and those massive, white pingpong-like spheres. Once topside, we turned right at a T junction, passing the station's administration building soon thereafter. A couple minutes later, we reached a small parking lot on the right where we stopped and would begin our hike. A sign announcing "No Hikers or Bikes Beyond This Point" is placed on the roadside to keep those unfamiliar with the area from driving past the designated hike staging locale.

We arrived at the head of the Kuaokala Trail at about 8:30 a.m., the group consisting of nine backpackers, who'd spend two nights camping out, and four others who'd hike in and out that day. Among the backpacking gang were several of the HTMC's experienced leaders, including Grant Oka and Joyce Tomlinson, the club's current president and vice-president, respectively; and veteran hike leaders John Hall and Ken Suzuki. Among the four dayhikers was Stuart Ball, the author of the popular "Hikers Guide to Oahu." By 8:45, everyone had readied their packs, I had snapped a group photo of the assembled backcountry-bound gang, and we were off under mostly-clear skies and propelled by gentle winds from the north.

The trail begins next to a sign warning against starting fires anywhere in the Kuaokala or Mokuleia Forest Reserve where we'd be hiking. Initially, we contoured gently along a ridge populated by ironwood and pine trees. Manini Gulch lay to the north, a discernible 4WD road cut into the ridge across the way (this road continues for many miles and leads to the Peacock Flats camping area and an abandoned Nike Missle Tracking Site.

Eventually, we worked our way through a shallow gully and then to the south face of Kuaokala Ridge, almost always along its side instead of at its crest. Soon the forest canopy yielded, opening up views of the lower portion of Makua Valley and the shimmering waters of the Pacific offshore.

Compared to other trails on the island, Kuaokala is relatively gentle, rarely confronting hikers with drastic ups or downs. In fact, in about an hour, the dayhikers had traveled about two miles to reach the far end of the trail--usually done in a loop-- where the Kealia Trail begins/ends (the backpackers, hefting heavier loads, didn't hike as quickly). The final mile of the stretch we covered consisted sections of eroded, iron-rich red dirt with spectacular views of Makua Valley and its far wall, Ohikilolo Ridge.

The views, obviously, are worth describing a bit. Although folks might argue the point, what one can see while hiking along the rim of Makua Valley is, at least in my estimation, the best on Oahu. While I tramped along, I was reminded of gazing down into the Grand Canyon (Makua is obviously not as deep) or, using a comparison closer to home, Waimea Canyon on Kauai. The valley, although heavily used as a giant shooting gallery by the military for many years, doesn't show excessive signs of abuse, at least from the upper rim. Sure some of the slopes are eroded and dirt roads are cut into the floor and up into the valley's foothills, but green abounds in Makua and the fluted walls of Ohikilolo Ridge are clean, pure, majestic.

The mile-along-the-rim stretch completed, we climbed a semi-steep eroded slope that topped out at the end of a dirt road. At that point, hikers can retrace their steps back to the start, or follow the dirt road downhill about a 100 yards to a junction where they can

A. turn left to follow the Mokuleia-Kuaokala Access (dirt) Road back to the trailhead (another junction further along the road heads north to eventually reach the Dillingham Airfield by Mokuleia); or

B. turn right and follow the road to an abandoned Nike Missle site, to Peacock Flats, or to a continuation of a trail that follows the Makua Valley Rim and eventually leads to the Mokuleia campsite.

The latter option is what the HTMC group chose so along the road we tromped. The road is wide and well-graded and normally fairly well-used except at the time a landslide had blocked the byway, denying access to all but the hardiest of 4x4 vehicles (Mike Uslan, a friend and 4x4 enthusiast tells me the road is due to be worked on and opened some time in March '97). A consequence of the blockage is that no vehicles were present on the day we hiked.

We hiked in the neighborhood of 30 minutes on the road. At one point, the Nike site, now just a couple of buildings and radio towers in disrepair, is clearly visible on a hilltop across a deep valley. If you hike along the road route, look for a junction at the base of the mountain where the Nike site sits. A rough jeep road climbs steeply to the right at that point while the main road veers left, contouring in and out of ravines along the base of the mountain and eventually reaching a paved road that leads to Peacock Flats and the Nike site.

If you are driving, left is the way to go. If hiking, head right and up and save yourself a long, tedious hike (I know about the tedium, having unwittingly hiked along the route with full-pack while training for an ascent of Mauna Loa).

The jeep road route isn't easy, and don't even think about ascending it in a vehicle unless you want to risk crippling/killing your vehicle and yourself, but it's the favored approach for hikers heading to the Nike Site, Peacock Flats, or the Mokuleia campsite. So right and up it was.

The road is eroded and steep, and at the top of its first pitch, conservationists have constructed a fenceline to keep wild pigs and goats out of Makua Valley, the home to several rare Hawaiian plant species. The road switchbacks a couple times to gain the ridgetop where one will emerge just above the Nike site at a spot (elevation 2,108 on the topo map) with a spectacular view of the North Shore from Mokuleia to Waimea Bay.

From the lookout, a trail heads right (basically south) to the Makua Rim Trail and the campsite. The backpackers would head that way while Wing Ng and I, just dayhiking, decided to head left (basically north) through the Nike site.

Once at the site, we picked up a narrow paved road and followed it steeply downhill, passing a junction where the Kuaokala- Mokuleia Access Road comes in on the left, bottoming out in ravine then climbing out of it to the Peacock Flats camping area (the paved road, blocked by three locked gates, continues down to Farrington Highway near the Mokuleia Polo Field). The stretch from the Nike site to Peacock Flats took us about 30 minutes. A glider from the Dillingham Airfield floated by overhead while we hiked along.

Peacock Flats, marked by a sign and accessed by a dirt road just off the paved road, is composed of two fairly sizable campsites (permits available at Kalanimoku Building). The first is on the left and is situated in a clutch of Norfolk pines. The second, marked by an open grassy area, is on the right.

The dirt road climbs gently past the camp sites up through the forest for about half a mile where it ends and turns into the Mokuleia Trail. A sign at the trailhead announces that one is entering the Pahole Forest Reserve and that mountain bikes (and presumably motorbikes, because of their destructive impact on the fragile dryland forest, are banned.

Like the road, the trail climbs gently through the forest, and in about 20 minutes, we had reached the Mokuleia campsite where the backpacking group would spend the next two nights. Wing and I arrived at the same time as longtime HTMC member "Big John," a muscular haole chap known for his rapid hiking pace, his penchant for going astray on the trail at times, and his preference for consuming plant-life rather than animal-life. Unlike Wing and I, Big John had turned right at the lookout above the Nike site and hiked to the campsite on the Makua Rim Trail.

Total time from trailhead to the camp: three hours. Distance: approximately seven miles. Arrival time: 11:45 a.m.

The campsite (elevation 2,108 feet) is situated in a small ravine just below the rim of Makua Valley. A gently-sloped grassy area about 20 yards long by 10 yards wide is available for tent camping. On one edge of this area is a trail shelter, too small for a tent or to sleep in but suitable for cooking, particularly during rainy weather. A 20-foot Hawaiian orange tree, fruitless except for a couple juicy delights in its upper branches, stands adjacent to the shelter (in 1996, I had hiked to this campsite on the Mokuleia Trail from Farrington Highway with the Sierra Club and the tree was full of fruit, albeit mostly green, at that time).

Wing and I stayed at the camp for a little over two hours, spending the time resting, eating lunch, talking story with Big John (he gave us an interesting demonstration of the workings of his wood-burning Sierra Zip stove), and greeting the other members of the backpacking group as they arrived.

At 2 p.m., knowing that hiking back to our cars at the trailhead would take about three hours, Wing and I strode off, first along the Makua Rim Trail (super views of the valley along this stretch and more maile than any other place I've hiked on Oahu), to the lookout above the Nike site, down the steep jeep road, along the Kuaokala-Mokuleia Access Road, and eventually back along the Kuaokala Trail to the trailhead.

Return time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Summation: Save for the road sections, this is arguably the best hike I've completed on Oahu, the great views and remote location of the trail enhancing its appeal. Most folks traverse the area as day hikers, completing the route as a loop by turning left at the first road junction and following the Kuaokala-Mokuleia Access Road back to the trailhead. Few day hikers, if any, ever use the same route Wing and I completed that day although completing such is obviously do-able, even with an extended rest/lunch break at the Mokuleia campsite.

I look forward to hiking this area again and urge everyone to head out and give this beautiful trail a try.

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